Italy’s Fall Season and the Prickly Chestnut

Chestnut season in Italy

October and November are chestnut season in Italy

As of the time of this writing, it is verging on prime chestnut season in Italy. This means that you can combine hiking (or at least a walk in the  woods) with chestnut gathering.

Hiking works well with chestnut collecting since it turns out that hiking boots function well for the gathering process. If you don’t want to prick your fingers on the spiky outer covering you need to use  your boots. The proper technique has you rolling the soles of your boots over the chestnut, cracking the spiky shell and breaking the brown shelled nut inside free. It is also not uncommon to find the nut already released from its intimidating outer covering. The joy of this is roughly equivalent to finding a loose pistachio in a bag of stubbornly shelled nuts.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I must admit I had never realized what form chestnuts came in. My knowledge limited to Nat King Cole Christmas carols,  or the heavenly sent of caldarroste (roasted chestnuts) vendors around Christmas. The first time I walked in the woods in Italy, I asked what those porcupiney things on the ground were. My Italian friend was incredulous that I could not recognize the chestnut in its natural state.

You the reader, may be a more worldly nut expert and may already have recognized the non Williams Sonoma’d form of the chestnut.  But make sure that your expertise includes  gathering too.

Chestnut season in Italy - the harvest

Where to go to gather chestnuts

During prime chestnut season you have plenty of location choices throughout Italy. And certainly the entire arc of the Alps offers great options. The ideal Italian Alps gathering ground: in the forests at an altitude of 500 – 800 meters. Here, there are tons of chestnuts, just lying around on the ground, it’s as if they grew on trees.

In order to avoid being a criminal (though people have committed crimes for far lesser reasons than the glorious chestnut) be aware that chestnuts that fall on the ground belong to the owner of that ground, so just make sure you are not tromping across someone’s land (or that you have at least obtained permission to avoid being a nut thief).

chestnut season in Italy - roasted chestnuts caldarroste


As a person with mountain interests, you may also be a person with gear interests too. And so you will of course be thrilled that your hiking boots will serve you in the collection process. But you don’t need to limit your self to boots alone. You can also acquire some chestnut specific cooking gear  to prepare your harvest. The fall season brings all sorts of wonderful Italian, recipes for using chestnuts but for the purest form is to roast them on the grill or fireplace ( or less cozy version on the gas cooktop) with your very own chestnut roasting pan.

Chestnut season in Italy - chestnut pan

Should you want to further immerse yourself in the chestnut world, the fall season is filled with sagre di castagne (chestnut festivals). These are sometimes combined with other fall foods like mushrooms. Plus plenty of chestnut themed dishes can be found in restaurants and pastry shops. If you are truly chestnut obsessed, you could dine on chestnuts with each course.

One last chestnut related note. Humans are not alone in enjoying the fruits of the tree. In Italy there some bees that feeds almost exclusively on the chestnut tree. They produce a dark honey with a slightly bitter taste and numerous healing properties, know as miele di castagno, it’s a fantastic topping for yogurt or oatmeal.

Chestnut season in Italy - chestnut honey - miele di castagno

Long live the chestnut. Check out this link then click on Calendario eventi di castagna and Calendario eventi di castagne  for  lists if chestnut festivals  (in Italian).




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Summer Ski Ride Italy 2018

Summer ski under the Matterhorn


Missing the board(s) underfoot? Not in the mood to earn your turns? For those who want to maximize their time sliding down Italy offers two lift-served options: Breuil Cervinia (with the option ski Zermatt too) and Passo dello Stelvio. Huge amounts of snow this past season have made for optimal summer conditions up high. Read on to find out where to find your  2018 summer ski and ride in the Italian Alps.

Breuil Cervinia

At  up 3500 metes (11483 ft) on the Plateau Rosà enjoy skiing with the Matterhorn (or Il Cervino as the Italians call it) as a backdrop.  Ski through September on the Italian side with 1 day adult passes at €32.50 . To add Zermatt access, an international one day pass costs €44.50 . Though plan your eating on the Italian side where prices are much more user-friendly.

Hours: 7:40AM to 1PM through August 20, and get in another hour until September 9 when lifts close at 2PM. Trails: 23 km (14 miles ) plus the Gravity Park for snowboarders and freestyle.


To learn more check the Breuil Cervinia website.

Passo dello Stelvio


If you really want to ski Passo Stelvio, summer is the time to go since the road closes from November to May. For late sleepers this may be the place for you as lifts are open until 5PM. Skiing elevation starts at 2760meters.  ( 9055 to 11319 ft) There was even 10cm of fresh snow July 1. An adult 1 day pass will set you back €45.00. Hours: 8AM to 5PM. Trails: 20Km (12 miles) 700m (2300 feet) of vertical. served by 4 Lifts and 2 cable cars

Find out more on Passo dello Stelvio's Piravano website.


And if you have been too busy on the beach but winter seems too far away, come October you have the options to ski Passo Tonale 's Presena glacier and Val Senales.

Passo Tonale - Presana Glacier

Val Senales -Gletscherbahn






Summer Ski 2018


easy hike in italy rifugio bonatti courmayeur monte bianco alps

Courmayeur, Italy Makes List of Easy Hikes with Big Rewards.

Easy hike in Italy -Rifugio Bonatti Courmayeur

Rifugio Bonatti, Courmayeur, Italy

Easy Hike in Italy

Courmeyeur, Italy's hike to Rifugio Bonatti makes National Geographic's list of  the 10 Best Easy Hikes with Big Rewards.  For those seeking a high return on their uphill investment, consider this easy hike on the Italian side of Mont Blanc. (,Or Monte Bianco as it is called on the Boot side of the border).

Short, long AND WINTER options, Food and Lodging

The shorter version of the hike, includes a shuttle which lets you start up higher on the trail for a total time up of about an hour to cover the 274 meters (900 feet)  of vertical gain. The longer option starts in the village of Courmayeur  for total climb of 853 meters (2.800 feet). If you want to hang out up high, you can book a reservation to stay the night. Also open in the winter, visitor's can access the rifugio on snowshoes or backcountry skis.  And last but not least, even just an hour's hike with great views still still deserves the opportunity to recharge yourself with the delightful food and drinks found in the Italian rifugi. So if looking for some easy hikes in Italy, check out the trail to Rifugio Bonatti.

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The links below contain some information in English on Rifugio Bonatti and the trail to reach it. These links may not have the most current data, but they can help you to learn more about the rifugio and how to reach it. For the most current information, conditions and reservations, you may want to contact the rifugio directly. 

Autour du Mont Blanc

Joannas Travel Blog

Trail Running and the Mont Blanc Region: 40 Routes in the Chamonix Valley, Italy and Switzerland  Excerpt from ebook by Kinglsey Jones


CAI trail markers

Understanding the Hiking Trail Rating System in Italy

Macugnaga Monte Rosa- hiking trail ratingFinding the best hiking trails to explore in unfamiliar territory can be a fun part of planning your alpine adventure. Italy offers an enormous wealth of choices in hiking trails, though finding information in English is not always easy. For those researching Italian hiking trails, read on for an explanation of  Italy’s hiking trail rating systems.

If you don’t know the trail you are on (and know it well!), navigating Italy’s  hiking trails can prove challenging, since Italian trail systems vary greatly in how clearly they are marked. Added to that challenge,  the trail descriptions themselves range from detailed and helpful, to let’s just say, the more casual and open-ended interpretations. Even those rated “T” (Turistico- easier) do not always offer enough signs to guide you in the desired direction. Keep in mind that those trails rated “E” (intermediate level), can include exposure and sections of cable, chains, metal rungs and there may be a need to do some scrambling.

cai-segnalorizz - hiking trail rating

Simple marking/Marking with trail number

Italy offers many scenic and enjoyable options for all levels of hikers. From high alpine environments to walks between villages or by lakes, rivers and seas, the trails in Italy provide spectacular views and experiences. Trails used for recreation, often have (and continue to have) working purposes. From uses by shepherds to bring animals up to pastures, to strategic army movements and even illegal activities, Italian trails have a history that extends beyond view seekers.

Hiking jaunts can be planned for an hour or two or for multi-day journeys. And the tradition of Italian rifugi allows hikers to recharge themselves with hearty Italian mountain food. Some rifugi also offer places to spend the night.

Time estimates

In addition to CAI’s ratings, many Italian trail descriptions offer an estimated time to reach certain destinations. Some trail descriptions provide a range of times based on the type of hiker, for example:

  • atleta (athlete):  The fast track. This time estimate is for those who must enjoy running (not walking) up mountains and do not linger for selfies.
  • trekker:  Still not a lot of lingering time (save the long breaks for post-hike beers), hiker times are for those in good condition who move at a good pace.
  • Famiglia/non allenato (family/non trained) There are no doubt families who move quickly, but it can take time to  herd groups with smaller humans uphill. This category also include the slowpokes and those who take the time to smell the roses or whatever flowers may be in bloom.

The translation of CAI’s (Club Alpino Italiano) national rating system is below.  CAI developed this hiking trail rating system used throughout Italy.  As indicated, these ratings are relative and should take into consideration your experience and fitness level.

If you are looking for winter options, read here to learn more about Italy’s ski tour rating system. 

Cai_Club_Alpino_Italiano_Stemma hiking trail rating


Determining the degree of difficulty of a route, in accordance with objective criteria, is impossible, due to the fact that we perceive difficulties based on our own experiences, limits, feelings and psychological reactions. With these variables in mind, Club Alpino Italiano developed a trail rating system to indicate the relative difficulty of hiking routes. This scale takes into account three fundamental objective parameters: vertical drop, planimetric distance and trail markings.

T = Turistico (Tourist – easier)

T routes are found on roads, mule paths or easy trails. These paths are generally fairly short in distance and well marked. The elevation gain is less than 500m (approx. 1600 ft). These routes do not require hiking experience or physical training.

E = Escursionistico (Hiker – intermediate)

E routes are almost always comprised of footpaths or unpaved trails and may include sections of varied terrain (pastures, dirt, rocks, scree) and are usually indicated with trail markers. To safely enjoy E rated trails, you should have a good sense of orientation, as well as some hiking experience and knowledge of mountainous territory. E rated trails require appropriate footwear, clothing and equipment. The elevation gain generally ranges from 500m to 1000m (approx. 1600 to 3300 ft).

EE = Escursionisti Esperti (Expert hikers)

EE routes are not always marked and require a strong ability to move about in various types of mountain terrain. These routes can be trails or more subtle paths that cross over difficult and steep terrain. Slippery scree and small sections of snow and ice, which can be crossed with the use of mountaineering equipment, may be encountered. EE trails are for experienced hikers with sure footing, in strong physical condition and with a good sense of direction. Venturing out on an EE trail requires proper footwear, clothing and equipment. The elevation gain is usually more than 1000m ( approx. 3300 ft).

EEA = Escursionisti Esperti con Attrezzatura alpinistica (Expert hikers with climbing equipment)

These routes require the use of climbing equipment (ropes, harness, helmet, etc.). EEA routes can include traditional climbing routes, vie ferrate or trails with cables and ladders.  Hikers exploring EEA routes need to have alpine terrain experience. They must also understand how to use technical climbing equipment safely and be comfortable with exposure.

EEAG = Escursionisti Esperti Attrezzati Ghiaccio (Expert Hikers with glacier climbing equipment)

The EEAG rating is similar to EEA, but includes the ability to use glacier equipment safely (crampons, ice axe, ropes, etc.).


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Mountain Culture: Italy’s Alpine Smugglers

Mountain Culture: Italy's Alpine Smugglers Schmuggler im Tessin 1950#Contrabandists in Ticino 1950

Spalloni: Big shoulders for big mountains

Mountain Culture & History: Italy's Alpine Smugglers

Spallone (plural spalloni), literally means big shoulders, (now you see the beauty if the idiomatic expression in the title).  The term used to describe the contrabbandieri, the smugglers who worked Italy’s borders with Switzerland and Austria. The Alps form an effective and imposing border, but those with the knowledge and the gumption, could sneak their way across when needed. The spalloni earned their living hauling heavy loads of contraband on their backs. They would seek out virtually impassable, steep and dangerous trails in order to minimize the risk of being caught by customs officials.

Mountain Culture Italy's Alpine Smugglers
Mountain Culture: Italy's Alpine Smugglers

Gear and Clothing for the illegal hikes

Up through the 19th century these smugglers earned their big shoulder name by carrying goods strapped to their backs in large woven jute baskets called bricolle. A knife was always kept within easy reach in case the bricolle's straps needed to be cut.  The knife allowed the smugglers to dump the packs for a quick get-away, should officials be encountered on the trail. There were no Vibram soles to ensure grippy footing, instead they covered their shoes with hand-stitched canvas coverings called peduli. These covers were used to soften the sounds of their footsteps so that  they could sneak across borders undiscovered.

For the spalloni, smuggling was a two way street (or trail). Up through the Second World War, they would carry coffee from Switzerland to Italy and return to Switzerland stocked with Italian butter. Rice and salt were also transported. Post war, the spalloni's hot items were cigarettes. Maximizing their long and arduous journeys, they loaded their packs with 30kg (66 lbs) of illegal goods.


In some communities, entire mountain villages were involved in this alternative form of trade. Mountain Culture- Italy's Alpine smugglers spallone-contrabbandieriBorder patrol and spalloni were officially on opposite sides of the law, but they also cooperated. Customs officials often turned a blind eye to the spalloni who may have been their neighbors or friends. The smugglers would do their share to help too; when needed, they could put their valuable knowledge of the mountains to less criminal use.  A deadly avalanche  in 1941 resulted in the spalloni helpingin the search and recovery of the bodies of three border guards who had been buried by the snow.

Certainly there is a romantic view of the spalloni today, who were often admired for their resourcefulness and courage. For those who want to reenact the journey of the spalloni, the Piemontese town of Crodo,  offers the Senitieri degli Spalloni (information in Italian).  This weekend on the trails complete with bricolle, 2016 edition took place onJuly 2 and 3.

Most 21st century spalloni tend to be less outdoorsy and no longer deal in coffee and butter. Stuffed backpacks and foot traffic have been replaced by cars carrying cash. Modern day Italian spalloni seek to hide their money from the always extended hand of the  Italian government. The journey is still risky, with customs agents periodically catching those attempting to smuggle  tens of thousands of euros in cash into Switzerland. Perhaps the old traditions can be profitable again, offering an alternative to those nosy border guards checking cars. In retrospect, it is likely that those who were nabbed trying to smuggle cash to Swiss banks would have been better off getting some retired spalloni to dust of their peduli and load up their bricolle.


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trekking poles

Converting to the Cult of Trekking Poles

trek leki

Trekking Poles- Not Just for Germans

Well maybe not a cult, but I had viewed the use of trekking poles as something other people did. I admit I thought it was wimpy to use poles when I hiked. Or maybe it was just for Germans who liked to wear high waisted pants and socks with sandals (which I might add in my crunchy fashion period I also modeled the stylish Tevas and socks look)  in my life, and never with the disdain I had for trekking poles. Or maybe it was ok for old people, especially old alpiney people, who walked with a smoothed but gnarled wooden stick, someone who  probably knows how to milk cows and goats and yodel, then I had no issue.

My opposition was likely not logical, I used them for skiing and snowshoeing and so why not for hiking? In Colorado( well at least ten years ago) they were not so common. Then I moved to Italy where there were much more frequent sitings on the trails ( and not just by the Germans or yodeling shepherds). Some use just one and some used two and I had already been using them for snowshoeing so the initiation was more subtle.

Your mountain ruggedness on display for the world to see

I deliberated but I was warming up to the idea. First, if not actually using your trekking poles, you can attach them to the outside of your zaino ( backpack) This has the added benefit of enhancing any mountainy style you want to exude.  Think of all the admiration you will garner with  poles strapped to  on the outside of your backpack, indicating that you are  likely carrying something importantly rugged.

Outdoor gear design is pleasing, why relegate it to the garage? Outdoor stores are beautiful with their displays, why must we buy these things and at least not admire them when not in use? Plus there is something satisfying about having mountain gear in my city apartment. Let’s not underestimate the decorative value of hiking poles. Not to mention anything telescopic is cool. However, I like to research and thought I should perform my due diligence for such equipment. I didn’t want them to annoyingly collapse as I was walking, possibly doing more harm than good. But still, I kept thinking about using trekking poles on the trail.


The Conversion

Last summer I was in Macugnaga for a couple of days. The town is a picture-perfect Italian alpine village at the base of Monte Rosa, where chickens and cows roam free. There is a nice hike up  to the Rifugio Zamboni. ( No connection, as far as I know, to the  American who invented the ice resurfacing machine but it is located at the base of a glacier, so there is at least that icy connection). The rifugio  offers places to sleep along with  food and is located a couple of hours hike up from the town, the poles could come in handy ( no pun intended).

While I hadn’t yet performed my normal full-on research for gear, I thought that maybe I should go ahead and pick up a pair anyway, so I went to one of the local shops with a nice display of poles and spent 20 minutes chatting with a short and twinkly-eyed mountain guide who appeared to have quite a bit of experience. When not guiding people he ran his shop. He explained the benefits (especially for older knees, of which his were and mine were becoming) and laughed as at one point he too eschewed the use of them but now was a loyal convert. Why wouldn’t you use them? He assuaged my concerns of collapsing telescoping poles with the patented closure that was easy to use and kept the height where  I wanted.  the added feature was an extended grip, nice, he assured me if sweaty hands had to grab a bit lower.

The trekking pole evangelist

I didn’t spend a fortune on them the Gipron- Italian patented system closures, (read the product review here) about 50  euro, ( you can spend hundreds) but neither were they the 10 euro cheapies.   After the first hikes, I was immediately a convert. I found they actually came in handy (pun intended) even on non-snowy walks, easing some of the aches and pains  that seemed more present in my knees and ankles, plus can help with balance . Like any new convert I had become an evangelist and wondered about the years I had wasted without these poles in my life.  Plus they were useful for things like pushing branches out of the way or beating wild boars, the latter of which I haven’t yet encountered and maybe they wouldn’t stop the boar but then again better than nothing. I now can’t hike without them.

Like a new cult member, I perhaps have gone overboard in trying to have my pole-less friends see the light They remain unconvinced, but in time they too may start reaping the benefits of trekking poles.


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Leki- Trek Together




A Small World in Piani d’Erna

2016-04-10 16.26.29 The trails in Piani d'Erna above Lecco offer choices offer rifugi, views and vie ferrate

Lecco is located on the lower right corner of the the upside down Y shaped Lake Como. Rising aggressively over Lecco are the  peaks of Monte Resegone ( in the local  dialect, resegà means saw and named for its saw like appearance due to its 11 summits of similar height ) a part of the Prealpi Bergamasche, a southern range of the Alps found in the region of Lombardia. Our all important lunch destination was Rifugio Capanna Alpinisti Monzesi. 

There are  a number of vertical rock faces that draw climbers and also options with vie ferrate, ladders, chains and cables to aid climbers requiring  you to bring a vie ferrate kit of harness and helmet and a distinct comfort  to be up high on vertical walls, plus the bonus to test out your flying Wallenda skills on the  route  named Gamma 1 one of the vie ferrate routes. ( you can harness yourself to the upper cable but the balance and gumption is still up to you)

The April Sunday I was joined by Luciano, Anna  and her son Zeno as we explored  a non harness required trail. Driving up a few switchbacks from Lecco we arrived at the base of the funivia  (cable car) for Piani d'Erna. You can take the funivia that starts at 600 meters above sea level to the Piani d'Erna 1325 meters above sea level, or you can walk the mulatierra (mule path).

We walked the mule path towards Rifugio Stoppani. There was a range of outdoorsy people some burly and hard core with climbing ropes , jingling carabiners and bulging muscles, then a smattering of trail runners and the rest hikers/walkers, dogs and kids and families and the winner for the trail person of the day was one lumberjack looking fellow with a log, jogging down the path.  Not sure if he was training for some sort of log carrying competition or just was in a hurry to carve a chainsaw bear. He was nevertheless determined and the path parted for his bulk and his log.

Photo 10-04-16, 12 01 32

There is a sign at the bottom of the funivia that describes the mountain fitness routes offered in the area. The sign not only shares  info on the types of trails but gives varied times to complete these trails based on your level of fitness. The terms are:

  1.  non allenato
  2. .trekker
  3. atleta
  4. best

I would say these could be translated into:

  1. Somone whose workouts consist primarily of remote control and bowl of chips lifting
  2. Someone who moves a bit, but their 6-packs are more likely be beer than abs
  3. Fit, someone who probably consumes kale smoothies regularly
  4. This is someone who likely irritates us in some way  due their magnificent levels of fitness and athleticism and we may console ourselves when encountering such quasi-mortals as how happy can they really be with such a rigorous exercise and diet regime, but we won't dwell on the negative.

I wonder what lumberjack's time would be with and without log?

Like many Italian trails there are shrines along the way to Virgin Mary, so if you see signs for the Madonna, don't think you will be encountering mobs of wannabes ( are Madonna fans still called wannabes, maybe that was abandoned in the 80's) . There is something pleasing though about sculptures and art in the woods.

We passed by one of the shrines arrived at Rigugio Stoppani had some water to replenish with water, but decided to wait until the next rifugio, Capanna Alpinisti  Monzesi, to have lunch, we climbed through the woods a bit more and came to a charming spot with a name I can't remember and does not seem be indicated on any of the maps. Keep in mind signage is not a strength of the Italian trail system, though apart from this nameless but cute spot the trails are well indicated and traveled in this popular spot of Piani d'Erna.

WIth no food at the nameless  inn and only ten more minutes to Capanna Alpinisti Monzesi,  off we went, passing a tethered mule to the pink-halveded bottom rifugio where we on polenta seated outside on stone benches. If  you plan on eating in an Italian rifugio, you should develop a taste for polenta or you may likely go hungry. Cornmeal must be easier to store or cook than other foods, or  maybe alpine hikers are just crazy for corn. It usually comes with a choice of toppings, like melted cheese, or mushrooms or beef stew like beef and sauce or maybe sausage. There is also wine and beer and views.

We had our polenta and then waited for the coffee, as we were eating there were some inside,enjoying grappa in incongruous plastic cups. ( all else seeming so sturdy, permanent and natural).  Hearing my accent they knew I wasn't from these parts but the grappa glow made them generous anyway. At first i declined thinking I didn't want to be sleepy or stumbly on the way down, ( grappa goes right to my head) but I reasoned that with all of that polenta I could manage the small cup. The grappa guys fired a series of questions living in Italy vs. the US and the upcoming American presidential elections and asking why my Italian friends were not drinking too. ( they clearly were wiser, though I managed to stop at one small grappa).

A little further down the path we encountered our grappa buddies again who wanted to stop back at Rifugio Stoppani for more grappa, but we were taking another route back. Turns out they were from a town where the son of my friend was born and they knew people in common. The people of provinces of Italy can be  referred to as "provincial" in the pejorative sense, at least by the Milanese who often deem themselves as more worldly than their country neighbors. Perhaps they are more  closed to outsiders having lived in smaller communities  and known the same people their entire lives, with not much need to venture out. However our new  friends were quite welcoming (maybe the grappa helped) as they stopped and took pictures together  and talked about common connections. we parted ways and moved towards the top of the funiva which we would take down back to the car. the grappa guys thought the funivia people were coglioni  (literally testicles, used in the sense of saying idiots, dickheads) and helpfully suggested I call them such, as the funivia closed at 6PM, despite much day light left and  a lot of people around. They remained perplexed by the Italian insistence to close early when there could be more business. An added note on the coglioni of the Piani d'Erna funivia , while 6PM is not an unreasonable closing time ( think US chair lifts in the summer) they did shut down for lunch. In Italy food takes priority. I thought coglione was a  bit strong a term as the guy working the cable car ticket office seemed pleasant enough, but yes the hours of availability of things in Italy do take some adjusting.

As we left the grappa guys, we followed trail one to trail five and while described as rocky, and overall relatively flat, it did have some exposure. There were chains and cables to hold on to on the narrowest parts of the trail.  A couple of sections had steel rungs to be used as ladders to move up or down over rock faces and needing use of hands too, but even for someone like myself who is not a fan of heights it was manageable. Still I was surprised that the description didn't mention this part, but then I shouldn't have been as descriptions can vary quite a bit.

We made it back to the cable car before it closed. An easy to reach spot from Milan Piani d'Erna is worth the visit.


oops waiting for Twitter to fly back

Raised Heart Rates Just Driving to the Hike

Free coffee and a Seven Dwarves tunnel on a rainy day in Parco Nazionale Val Grande.

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Taking the long and winding and very narrow road 

In seeking out new spots to explore, especially during mud season where upper elevations were still snowy but maybe too patchy for snowshoes, Parco Nazionale Val Grande seemed a good choice for a Milan day trip. The starting point was in Cicogna, which was just 17km but a world away from Lago Maggiore's less rustic lakeside Verbania. The road up was described  ..alla strada molto stretta .. (very narrow) but while accurate, the description was not  comprehensive. My friend, and fellow American transplant, Michele, was kind enough to drive so off we joined the Milan mass weekend exodus and drove towards greener pastures.

The road trip up is not for the faint of heart, serving to raise my heart rate even before doing any hiking.  The rocky walls stingily yielded space to the single lane road with numerous blind spots and curves as it switchbacked up away from civilized luxury of Lago Maggiore to a more rustic environment. As we climbed higher, even in a small car, we had to make 3 point turns on some switchbacks as the car couldn't manage the tight radius. On some sections it was possible to see down to the alpine green blue rushing rapids at the bottom of the narrow gorge we were driving up. I was unsure which was the less scary  way to look but still attractive view, the long ways down river or waiting to see a surprise vehicle around the next curve.

Hand Carved Tunnel

Like many places in Italy, the journey not only seemed to be one across distance but time, complete with warnings that there was no cell service in this part. the final 10Km is particularly stretta with an incredible tunnel  that seemed to have been carved by the seven dwarves, low and rocky with no lights or warnings , the car entires and for a moment it is completely black, then a second or two into it, the figurative and literal light is seen. I am not sure who made this tunnel, but another peculiarity of Italian front yards is an affinity for Snow White and the Seven Dwarves sculptures. Maybe it's like the past trends of pink flamingoes, lawn jockeys and more recently garden gnomes, not sure exactly about this affection for plastic Disney figures in the country which gave birth to Michelangelo. So maybe it really were the seven dwarves who carved this spooky tunnel with their pickaxes.

Largest wilderness area in the Alps

Some more twists and turns arrived at the town of Cicogna and could imagine the town itself would offer great views if the clouds had not been thick and misting, allowing us to glimpse a few skinny waterfalls across the narrow valley. Val Grande is the largest wilderness area in the Alps and word is that there are a lot of snakes in Val Grande. We didn't spot any serpents,  maybe they didn't like the rain but we did come across a big fat black shiny spotted salamander.

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Hospitality and coffee just for us

Accustomed to having coffee everywhere in Italy, we figured there would be a bar to find an espresso and bathroom break before we started on our planned  trail: La civiltà della fatica  an intermediated level loop estimated at 5 - 6 hours . I recalled the notice on the website that the visitors center would be closed for repairs for 2016. Before arriving in Cicogna, I wondered why they were allotting an entire year for redoing the visitor's center,  I couldn't imagine that the visitor's center was a large multi media creation that you might find in say the Grand canyon, it was likely no more than a room,  so a year seemed a generous allotment for redoing it, but after driving the road I am thinking they may have a hard time getting workers to make the commute, so they allowed a year's buffer.

In any case I was not too concerned,  in Italy there seems to be some unwritten law about having coffee available where more than three people may congregate. Walking a narrow pathway between buildings built on terraced hillsides we looked for signs of caffeinated life. All seemed closed and dreary when we passed  by three people who looked out of place, dressed  and asked if they knew of a bar or place for a coffee. They said everything was closed. So I said to Michele that we would have to find a tree  to pee on and go without caffeine.

The troop of 3 must have taken pity on the wet foreigners as they turned around and told us to follow them. They led us down some stairs between buildings and they knocked on the door of the Ostello del Parco ( which also seemed closed, but was open to those who wanted to stay overnight) the briefcase man  asked the man who answered if he would offer us a coffee and if we could use the bathroom. He welcomed us in and sent a colleague into the kitchen to brew us up a caffè lungo on with his stove top Moka. The room we waited in had a few dining tables draped in vinyl covered cloths with one bearing a display selection of locally made genepy and chamomile liquor. Some other hikers with their dog were checking out and had left the dog's plastic baggie of poop in the yard, a few minutes later they returned to retrieve it. It seemed Cicogna was filled with people displaying little niceties, providing a silver lining to the clouds leaking on us from above.

Our coffee and bathroom break were free but we did buy some dried genepy to make an herbal tea and a bottle of chamomile cordial. Then we started our walk up.

Eerie mist make for otherworldly atmosphere

The place seemed otherworldly, perhaps a combination of weather and that road up. The mist and clouds masked the views, but it was still scenic. Occasionally we could glimpse something in the distance giving us an idea of what it would be like on a clear day.

Photo 16-04-16, 13 47 12

The weather and a later start modified our hike to just and out and back to the rifugio Alpe Prà . The rifugio closed, some info indicates  it is opened occasionally though it is not clear when those occasions are . The loop seems like a nice walk though and now that we know how to arrive, we will depart earlier or there is the option to stay overnight at the Ostello del Parco.


English Language Links for Parco Nazionale Val Grande


We did a much shortened version of the trail to  Alpe Prà and Casa dell' Alpino (suggested time 1.5 hrs up with vertical gain of 518 meters on w ell defined trail) The trail is dotted with signs sharing information on the people, flora, fauna and history of the area. While the signs are in Italian, they are illustrated so you can get a sense of the information with the images.  It is recommended to do this tour in the fall when the leaves are changing.



Spectacular Spec

Food always tastes better after an active day in fresh air. Enjoy the speck from the Alto Adige region, nicely paired with a local wine- “what grows together goes together” .

Speck, IMO, could be translated as delicious, but it is translated from the ancient high German word “spek” meaning something thick, fat. ( which to many of us also could mean delicious) However you can cut off the fattiest part should you want and it is a good source of protein (muscles come in handy when doing lots of mountainy things) .

South Tyrolean farmers slaughtered pigs at Christmas and cured the meat to keep their families fed through the winter. The salty, slightly smokey meat follows the traditional preparation today “a little salt, a little smoke and a lot of fresh air.” Those who prepare it, guard their secret seasoning formulas.

Suedtirol, Speck, geniesen, Vinschgau, Marende, Herbst,

Suedtirol, Speck, geniesen, Vinschgau, Marende, Herbst,

For those who get really into speck, there is a speck festival that takes place in Alto Adige each year. The next one is in October, check out the Montanari Events Calendar or visit the website dedicated to this spectacular cured meat for more info including recipes. ( I suggest you read it while eating properly slices speck , and if you really become a fan, then you are in luck as there is an entire festival dedicated to this cured pig meat. The South Tyrol Speck Festival takes place in October, who wouldn’t want a t-shirt from that!)


Facing My Fear of Heights – Indoors

It felt like this:


But in reality it was this:

mission-cliffs-climbing wall crop

A  much milder wall with colored plastic rocks that looked like friendly Fisher Price toys. Still despite the friendly child-like colors, the Milan’s Rockspot indoor climbing gym’s wall felt more like the first image.  Indoor climbing has become a sport of increasing popularity thanks to climbing gyms, and I thought why not give it a try, maybe tone up the arms and overcome, or at least feel more comfortable with a fear of heights. Many friends have enjoyed the sport but I never really thought too much about it. I liked my feet on the ground and foot- ground relationship is one I have actively nurtured through the years, so why now should I want to through a wrench into the happy pairing of my feet and ground?

Since I  like to spend time in the mountains and now the closest ones happen to be the Italian Alps, I have found myself more on the edges of things. Having lived smack in the center of the mountains for many years ( the aptly named Summit County no less, I had somehow managed to steer clear of the edges of things, but in Italy the trails seem to favor edges, so maybe I needed to find a better way than sweaty palms and increased heart rates to deal with them.

I used to get sweaty palms driving over mountain passes, once when driving over Loveland Pass in Colorado, the center stripes on the swithcbacky, high mountain pass had just been repainted and so cones were set in place down the middle of the road to prevent smearing of the lines. These cones, while protecting Colorado Department of Transportation’s artwork, also prevented me from driving more comfortably in the middle of the road, and  I was forced to remain in my proper lane,  too close to the edge for my comfort . This cliff hugging drive caused my palms to sweat and heart to pound and I had to take deep breaths to remain calm and talk myself through this harrowing drive. It was a clear day and the road was dry but it was one of the many instances when I was acutely aware of not having enough space around me even though  I was in a car not trying to balance while walking across some narrow rocky narrow edge.

It’s not that I entirely avoided high spots, I have spent lots of time on chairlifts, but I preferred to lean back while on them, never one to adjust my ski boots unless the safety bar was firmly in place. So what exactly was I doing now with a group of people who seemed to be half my age in the arrampicata aperitivo? (rock climbing happy hour). FYI the happy hour took place after the climbing, a dangling carrot of a reward for dangling off ropes far above the gym floor. Though my friend who joined me (and was also sharing in the non ground contacting nervousness) proposed that a dose of liquid courage could have also been useful before the class.

The Italians are good at making things social and they also seem to enjoy taking classes, so it makes sense that they would combine the Milanese tradition of aperitivo (a happy hour with food and drink) with a class.

I have always been fascinated by stories of climbing and do a fair amount of hiking and other mountainy things, but hiking with an occasional rock scramble is different from using ropes and harnesses. (this is of course for climbing and not a 50 Shades of Gray reference).

The first part of the class allowed us to do some bouldering, no ropes on a relatively low wall , working our way across rather than up the lowest level of this wall, getting used to the shoes which scrunched your toes into a stronger curled position and learning about the basics of how to stand and move, trying to maintain a stable triangular position with two legs and an arm.

Leaving the ground behind

After a bit of time on the bouldering wall with cushy crash matts below it was time to leave the ground. The instructor explained the use of the harness and the safety of the the ropes, assuring us we would not fall. He, dressed in baggy jeans and a sweatshirt had to fix another rope for our grouped and gracefully sprung his way up the wall, Fred Astaire like but moving vertically with carabiners and rope. A group of kids seemed to be running up the wall, not nearly as light on their feet but still sprinting vertically to the top with no hesitation or seeming effect of gravity on the body or mind. These types of moves were not to be mine on that evening.

With ropes fixed, our group of newbies were up. My friend and belay partner took her turn and now it was mine. Feeling pretty good post bouldering, I was giving myself an internal pep talk that I could do this. No lightness or speed accompanied my first ascent. Just deliberation, telling myself to ignore the pain in my toe that the climbing shoes were pinching as my toe was an essential if minimal contact point ( recall I liked my feet to touch things) . But hey, I was moving, I was balancing. I was stretching. I was climbing. Then I looked down. The ground by now seemed quite far (though I was only slightly more than halfway up the wall) I looked for my partner, who seemed to be watching everyone but me. (no doubt they were more appealing to watch, but I did need some slack in the line as I decided it might be time to go down. Going down requires notifying your  belayer so that the tension on the rope can be released to let you descend.  However my request didn’t catch  her attention. So I called her name, and still no response. I  switched from Italian to English and called out again my desire to be closer to the floor.  All the while perched on two tiny pieces of plastic well above the ground. Eventually my partner heard the now more urgent calls of of requesting to come down and they she asked what to do , she  asked if she should let the “rope go”? My response was a quite emphatic no, as I visualized the cord rapidly snaking away and until finally sipping up through the pulley that was my backup should the arms and legs give out.  Telling her to find the instructor to guide her and me to the ground resolved the issue and I started to move down. Still, I was no Cirque du Soleil performer and clunkily bounced off the wall until touch down.

We worked out the distraction issues and tried again. This time on a different route. I figured I should make it up a bit higher this time . Most of my fellow newbies were reaching the top of the wall but I felt quite studly at  3/4  point when I made the mistake again of looking down.  Going up was not a breeze but it was not too difficult either, physically. The hardest part was being up high. There is a reward in looking down , in seeing how far I came, but the reward for me was short lived, as once I looked  to see my progress my  lofty ambition was replaced with affection for the ground.  The return to earth was  slightly less clunky but elegance seems to be a long way off.

Come for the drinks, stay for the climb

The instructor was patient and encouraging and the group friendly, We now had reached the aperitivo portion of the evening and enjoyed a well deserved beer and surprisingly tasty food.(Yes, I know, Italy has good food, so not sure why I was surprised, I guess just not expecting nice prosciutto at a gym.) My friend made a comment which stuck with me “there was no chance to think of anything else” It was true. For me and for many others ( though I suspect more so for those who are not friends with height) it was an activity that immediately and completely was all absorbing. Thinking about where to put arms and legs and how to move. I think there is something to do with a looming  fear is a big aid in helping you to remain in the the moment. In the end it was quite a rewarding experience and I have signed up for more, hoping that I will be able to look down without wanting to come down.

Image credits:

Mission Cliffs

Noun Project- Jeremie Sommet